by Kirstin Yu

The Café hasn’t opened yet, but I can already feel the buzz in the air, the anticipation of intoxication. The patrons have congregated a few blocks down the street, as they always do, and through a crack in the window I watch as they lean into the shadows and cast furtive glances at one another. It’s all a charade; everyone knows the AO will never show up here, not when there are larger circuits to fry. But the manager does like to remind the patrons that we were raided one time—if only because someone at the AO messed up and got the wrong address—and every month we make the patrons go through raid drills. The manager says the romance of it all makes the patrons happier. They know they’re kidding themselves, but that’s the point of theater, isn’t it? Otherwise, we’re just some tiny joint on the outskirts of Metville, one in a thousand, a place for nobodies.

“Small crowd tonight,” May observes.

“It’s always a small crowd,” I say, drawing back from the window. “What do you expect?”

May shakes her head. She’s new to the business and still carries the idealistic notion that we’re the ones producing art and all the legitimate operations in our field are just sell-outs regurgitating government trash to placate the masses. It’s an endearing outlook, but it won’t last.

“We’re artists,” she says.

“Sure,” I say. “Doors opening in five.”

She turns and heads backstage. I should be back there too, but my eyes are stuck roving through the dimly lit room, taking in the rickety, corroded tables soon to be wedged amid eager patrons, the stained floors, disintegrating particles gathering in the corners, that serrated gash in the wall from the brawl a few months ago when an overwrought patron refused to leave. The gash looks larger than before, as if the space around it has slowly withered away; the walls are shrinking in on themselves, flinching away from the tired light of the moon that trickles in through the crack in the window.

“Rev!”

The manager. I shake my head to reset and turn away to push through the curtain leading backstage. When my eyes have adjusted to the complete darkness, I see Clo is missing.

“She said she’ll be back soon,” says Bret. He is standing by the wall, and from the way he stares blankly over my shoulder, it’s obvious he’s turned off his visual processors. None of us know why he does, and I haven’t ever asked. May thinks that’s how he “gets into the zone.” I doubt it.

“Where’d she go?” I say.

“Does it matter?” says Bret.

“It’s fine,” says May. “I can stretch for time if we need to.”

I glance over at Bret. “Bret, your buttons are mismatched.”

He doesn’t even look, just pats vaguely at the front of his shirt. “Damn,” he says.

“Aren’t you going to fix it?” May is incredulous.

“No,” he says. I roll my eyes for May’s benefit, but she doesn’t notice because she’s too busy warming up in the mirror. I should do the same. I don’t.

There’s a sudden change in the air as the doors open and they enter, one by one, electrified whispers and the grating rasp of chairs dragged back from tables. May leaps up from the mirror and sticks her face up against the space between the curtains.

“Small crowd?” I say.

“Small crowd,” she says.

The curtain rustles, and we jump back as Clo pushes through.

“Where have you been?” I ask.

“We starting or not?” she says.

“They’re not all seated yet,” May says.

“Yes they are,” says Clo. They aren’t, but she has seniority. We don’t argue.

We are in complete darkness, so nobody can see us as the curtains slide open. Of course, they could if they really wanted to, but who would deliberately ruin the illusion? I dial up my visual processors to get a look at tonight’s patrons. The usual crowd—young, scattered couples, a few older groups of four or five, some loners sitting in the back. Three in the front who must be first-timers from the way they’re still staring at the stimulus chips, unsure of how to insert them. I’m about to dial my eyes down again when a face catches my attention. He looks young, sitting by himself against the gashed wall, his eyes almost meeting mine as he peers into the darkness. As he strains to see into the darkness, strains with those uneven eyes, that face distorted in asymmetry—

“Looks like we got us a sap,” says Bret in a low voice that only we can hear.

“How’d he get in?” says May.

“Quiet,” says Clo.

I look at Bret, but his visual processors are still off.

Tonight’s show is an adaptation of The End of Their World, a classic production that usually requires a full ensemble of at least twenty, along with five set changes. We have four and zero, respectively. I call it low-budget. May calls it art. Either way, the patrons don’t care.

The manager rings the bell, and a muted chime sounds. Clo steps forward into the spotlight. “Has anyone seen my cat?”

Has anyone seen my cat? July 4, 2145: the final recorded words of the mayor of Accident, Maryland, and thus the final recorded words of any government official of the former United States of America. It’s not particularly funny, and Clo overexaggerates her words, but the audience bursts into laughter nonetheless. I don’t even feel the desire to smirk, but then again, my emotion processors aren’t currently being overloaded by the chips protruding from each of the patrons’ ports.

Before I can help myself, I’m looking at the face by the wall. He recognizes the words too, and his brow furrows. Well, what did he expect?

Clo continues on in a bumbling, occasionally rhyming, monologue, and the guffaws of the audience flood my audio processors. A few minutes in, and some of them are literally rolling on the floor. The face by the wall is bemused, his crooked features balancing on the edge of fright as he gapes at his fellow audience members losing themselves in merry abandon. There is a crash as someone breaks a chair from laughing too hard.

In the darkness, I finally tend to my neglected warm-up. I twist my mouth up into a smile that feels stretched and cracked, then down into a frown. Repeat over and over again until my face finally loosens up, and my smile comes easy, and the frown is like the zap of a laser—smooth and fast. Bret knows I do my warm-up last minute, but he doesn’t line up his buttons, and Clo always starts us early, and only May is unaware that the path she’s started on can only lead nowhere—night after night of raucous laughter, roaring anger, thunderous joy, and the dull gleam of those tarnished chips winking out from the audience like the campfires scattered along the borders of the wasteland.

We are in the middle of a poetic scene of fear and misery (I’m kneeling by Clo, who is collapsed on the floor, while May wails and Bret screams into the darkness) when the synth agent screeches out a warning. In an instant, the patrons’ chips automatically eject, and fog billows from the walls. Somewhere overhead, toneless, throbbing beats tumble through the air, and the stage is a dance floor; we are all on our feet, moving our bodies in sync to the pulse. The patrons too, initially startled and a lot slower, but most are regulars and have already joined in. The ones who haven’t are still weeping to themselves, and their neighbors are in the process of shoving them under the tables. As I twist and turn, I catch a glimpse of the face against the wall. He is frozen in his seat, his lopsided eyes open wide.

Another drill, I suppose. But then I remember that we just had a drill two weeks ago, and the manager never interrupts us this late in the show, and just when the last of the tearful patrons have been hidden, the doors burst open and a team of fully geared AO officers storm in.

They come to a halt as they process the scene before them—the music, the dancers. Hopefully they don’t look too closely at the patrons, some of whom are so excited that they’ve started faintly sparking. Luckily, the manager is there, drawing their attention, talking to the leader. I dial up my audio processors, but the manager is speaking softly, and all I can hear is the toneless music. There is something strange about the officers, perhaps something odd about their uniforms; and then one of them turns around and the back of her vest reads, Department of Homo Sapiens Affairs, and I realize they’re not from the AO after all.

I spin past May and she grimaces, though whether in sympathy for the face by the wall or in exasperation that the show was interrupted I can’t be sure. Bret slides by me and shakes his head; when I try to ask why, he’s danced away. Clo has disappeared again.

The face by the wall still hasn’t moved. He has pressed himself closer to the wall, as if he might fold himself into the wall’s splintered wound and escape notice. It’s only a matter of seconds before the manager realizes this is not an AO raid, that they are only looking for one thing, and that thing happens to be sitting three meters away. I fight the urge to stop dancing and stare.

But they keep talking and talking. Eventually, the leader of the team makes a round through the room, scanning each of us, but when she gets to the face by the wall, her eyes skip right over his terrified features as if he has indeed managed to sink into the laceration behind him. The manager goes up to her again. They talk, she seems to apologize, the manager accepts. The HSA team leaves. We give them a few minutes before dropping the lights again and picking up at the next scene.

Later, after a thunderous round of applause and calls for encore, after the tables have been cleared away and the last patrons removed from the premises, I realize that the face by the wall has disappeared. I don’t know when he left; I lost track of time many years ago.

May asks the manager what that was all about.

“Looking for some sap,” says the manager, shrugging. “Probably a prank call.”

“But there was one,” says May. “By the wall.”

“How did he get past the synth agents?” says Bret.

The manager looks at us, processing. “Synths don’t have him on record. You all should get some rest, get ready for tomorrow’s show.”

“There was a human,” May protests. “We all saw him.”

“I didn’t see him,” says the manager. “Synths didn’t see him. The HSA didn’t see him. Go home.”

“But,” May tries again, but the manager has already walked away.

“Don’t bother,” says Bret, and he leaves too.

“You saw him,” says May, turning to me.

“I guess,” I say.

She turns as if looking for Clo’s affirmation as well, but Clo is gone.

“Come on,” I say. “He’s right.”

“Which one?”

“Both of them.”

“So we’re just going to go home and forget about it?” May is incredulous again, but there’s a tinge of fatigue dulling the edge of it.

“Show tomorrow,” I say, by way of explanation.

“It’s art,” May reminds me.

“Sure it is.”

We leave the Café lights on when we go, and the discarded chips on the floor curl in on themselves, disintegrating into tiny particles of dust.

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